Coach's Corner

A man stands at a window staring out at the sky. It is as it always was: a remorseless, unending pale blue. Occasionally a white cloud drifts listlessly by, as if the stifling heat affected even things not bound to the earth. The man's in one of the state's maximum security prisons, but he's free to move about. There are no walls. No guard towers. No guns. There's today, tomorrow, forever: only the sky, the sun and the heat. The landscape outside his window's bleak; dried out, parched grass and a shimmering blacktop in the distance. He's free to move about but he chooses, as they all do, to stay inside. After a short time the convicts became docile: as washed out and listless as the land. The man, like all the rest, imprisons himself. He goes nowhere. He does nothing. Okay, I'm not Frank Herbert. I won't be writing the next Dune, but this is my life as the days of July slowly flow (like lava) toward the hotter days of August: The only good thing about mid-July is that guys with helmets start turning up in the sports page. Hopeful that writing about football might get my mind off of the breath-sucking inferno outside, I'll begin there: As a Cowboy hater with a newspaper column, my anti-Cowboy sentiments are well-known. Still, I'll miss Michael Irvin. True enough, he epitomized the cocky, obnoxious, player Cowboy Haters International knew so well. True, his I'm-a-Cowboy-and-I-can-do-anything-I want lifestyle (as long as he keeps catching passes) was foretold 20 years earlier by Pete Gent in the classic football novel North Dallas Forty. Still, I must give the man his due. Together with Jerry Rice, Irvin stands as the best wide receiver of his generation. If you're a statistics guy, you might not agree. His 750 career receptions pale behind the 1,200 catches of Rice. Stats, however, often lie. This is the case with Michael Irvin. Playing on a team designed to run the football, Irvin was the prototype of the big receiver so in vogue today. To my disgust, the man almost never dropped a ball he touched. Bigger, faster, and tougher than all the defensive backs trying to cover him, he was without fear; there was no route on the football field he couldn't run. I remember one summer a few years ago when Deion Sanders became a Cowboy. Irvin beat Deion again and again in a full-contact scrimmage. He went over the smaller Sanders, he went under him, he went past him, and he went through him. But it wasn't mean or vindictive. Irvin was having fun, yapping away on the solar blast furnace that was St. Ed's in August. He liked summer practice. He liked to work. His boyish enthusiasm was, to his teammates, infectious. He had an uncanny chemistry with the most accurate passer of his day, his physical opposite, Troy Aikman. Troy threw it. No. 88 caught it. It's a simple game for a certain Hall of Famer. Irvin was a football player ...

For the last two years, teams in the NBA -- Chicago and Orlando in particular -- worked hard in anticipation of this year's free-agent class. Chicago disbanded a great championship team, scattering the Bulls to the winds. Orlando also made radical changes in their personnel. All in anticipation of big names like Duncan and Hill. Now that it's all but over, it seems kind of anticlimactic. Some guys switched teams, some guys stayed where they were, some guys, like young pup Tracy McGrady, made a killing. No teams are that much better. Tim Duncan (king of the free agents) made the not sexy -- but correct -- choice to stay with the Spurs. David Robinson provides Duncan with a cushion no other team can provide. He'll play 25 minutes at center every night, banging away with the big guys, freeing Tim to light up the poor sap that has to cover him at power forward. Duncan does not want to play center. San Antonio's the only team able to offer him this luxury. Orlando's better, but how much is uncertain. McGrady's only a kid with lots of potential. Toronto's a lovely city, where Tracy was second banana to Vince Carter. I'd have stayed in Toronto rather than go to the Land of the Mouse. Now he'll be second banana to Grant Hill. Hill meanwhile exchanged Jerry Stackhouse for McGrady. I can't see Orlando being much better than Detroit, but Hill was weary of empty promises from the Pistons. The Bulls, of course, got the shaft. Zip-zap-goose for an embattled Jerry Krause. That Krause, a hard-bitten NBA lifer, thought he ever had a chance at Hill or Duncan might give Bull fans pause. With an odd -- to put it blandly -- draft, it's apparent Chicago's going to have to show future free agents something on the court before they're going to commit to a Save the Bulls project.

At the end, Orlando's a few games better. Detroit's a few worse. The Bulls better get a few decent veterans to play with all those kids or it's another nightmare in the United Center. The big winner is the Spurs, who get a new stadium, stay the same, keep a top player (and a good guy), and maintain a realistic shot at another title. In other words ... next year's NBA landscape will remain pretty much unchanged.

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